Frontline social workers in Gaza: ‘We want only peace’
Rory Truell, of the International Federation of Social Workers, describes his conversations with colleagues in Gaza and the West Bank during the eight-day military offensive.
“It is the children we are worried about,” said Riad, a social worker from the West Bank. “We have to do everything we can to keep the long term traumatic effects to a minimum.”
Riad works as a child protection social worker. Before the eight-day offensive, his role was to protect children’s rights and ensure they were free from the effects of domestic violence and physical or sexual abuse.
His job will be understood by social workers throughout the world. The highly developed skills of working with families in crisis, shaping and facilitating outcomes that enable children to thrive is always a challenge – but fulfilling these roles with the everyday background of poverty and military occupation makes a difficult job even more complex.
However, Riad and other social workers from the Palestinian Union of Social Workers & Psychologists have learned to navigate the political, social and economic restraints. So when an all-out military campaign rains bombs on Gaza, and no one knows who will get hit next, Riad was able to change focus immediately and take action aimed at creating the widest positive effects for the maximum number of children.
Riad is the kind of person who gives everyone around him confidence. His wisdom and experience show in his gestures and his considered words. Even though he suffers along with everyone else in his community, he maintains his professional role and speaks calmly and thoughtfully. He will not be persuaded to get angry but, instead, reminds everyone that “all have a responsibility to look after the children”.
He told me that he had approached the local media and asked them not to show graphic pictures of people killed. “We have to try to control the level of trauma that the children are exposed to,” he explained. “They need a secure and safe place to try to absorb what is happening around them and images of bodies in the newspapers do not help.”
At the beginning of the offensive, Riad contacted local schools and offered to train teachers how to manage the social and psychological effects on the children. Schools were more than willing to participate. He instructed the teachers to allow each child to speak each day for five minutes on what was happening in their families, and also to speak about the good things that were happening.
“It’s important that the children don’t suppress their feelings and that they search for their strengths and hope for the future,” he said. “If they can’t process their emotions during this time, they could be affected for the rest of their lives.”
As well as getting children to verbalise their stories, Riad has organised workshops in class where the children are encouraged to draw their feelings and tell stories in images. Another technique he teaches is to encourage the children to play out their experiences in supervised play sessions. These approaches enable the children to find ways to externalise the trauma, rather than letting it fester like an internal time bomb.
Mohammed, a social worker from Gaza, was not so able to support the children. It was impossible for him to get to his place of work while bombs were destroying homes and entire families in his district. His normal social work role involves projects to engage youth and older peoples in sporting and other positive activities.
Mohammed told me he felt so sad that so many innocent people had died – including more than 20 children – and that he was unable to leave his home to arrange support. He said that as soon as the bombing stopped, he would be able to resume his work, made more difficult because some roads are now unusable. For many homes, there is no electricity or running water.
It was clear to me that Mohammed was also traumatised but had not lost his focus on his professional aspirations: “Help people, find them resources, get them helping others,” he said.
I asked Mohammed what resources he wanted. “We only want peace. I want to live in peace. I want everybody to live in peace.
“When the bombing stops, we will rebuild. There are so many people who will need social work to overcome their grief and loss and we will have a lot of work to do’.”
I asked Riad how it is for him personally. He replied that he is a father of three children and each night they, like all children, wake screaming from nightmares and fears that their house will be the next one to be hit. “A war is a challenge for social workers,” he said. “We are mothers and fathers, too, and it can be lonely being both a professional and a parent at these times.”